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March 30, 2018

The story of a doctrine


March 30, 2018

It has descended, we are told, from an unprecedented interaction that the army chief held with some selected journalists of varying hues and disposition. A few that I have learnt were there are mostly characterised ‘liberal’ and ‘independent’, able to formulate their voices effectively in support of democracy. In Pakistan, it translates differently because the military is now patently defined anti-democratic by the same class of journalists without any inhibition.

‘Inhibition’ too is important to define here: the influence, in popular refrain, exercised by the military on the media to proffer the military’s point of view which in popular proclamation of the largely ‘independent’ media is anti-democracy. In reality it is not, but who cares? Who has ever bothered checking facts in the larger media culture globally where fake news has value and can sway opinions in untold manner? So it goes here. Build a bogey, then smash it to smithereens. The story builds unchecked and then sustains on its own steam. And there are craftsmen at work in the field on this one. A task has been handed out and they fulfil orders to satisfaction.

Yes, an off-the-record interaction took place; and no, I wasn’t there as weren’t most who have ended up commenting. And most of those who were present weren’t exactly ‘friends of the accused’. And those inviting were properly aware of the kinds who were being invited to hear the chief out. Does that put to rest the assumption that those invited were intended to leak the chief’s observations? The train of such thought (convoluted?) assumes that the interaction was kept off-the-record so that it could not be kept off-the-record. Who should one believe? The army or the journalists so invited for their mostly speculative approach towards the military’s intent towards democracy? In strictly legal terms, where would a ‘defence lawyer’ home on to blow holes in a testimony from a witness with obvious proclivities? Let a lawyer address that.

So the story came out from one of the participants, ever so committed to the cause of democracy. Clearly, I use the same ruse as a convenient classification to explain the nature of reporting. Popularly, this is when the bogey was first built. And then it got smashed. Those who did not print spoke with abandon and unrestrained glee of yet another revelation from the army chief of his disdain for things constitutional. After all, he had violated the limits of his domain and undertaken to discuss areas of concern – to him – about the government’s policy; this was constitutionally outside his remit.

Hence the bashing and the comparisons and the unfortunate but very clear references to the military being bereft of the necessary qualifications to address issues that the chief had chosen to speak on. Come on, who did the chief think he was? Picketty, or Keynes, or Malthus? BISP is not handing out a fish, neither teaching how to fish, but is a modernistic interpretation of the famous poverty alleviation theory unbeknown to the simplistic soldier the army chief is. Or a means of building a vote-base. I dared to append the last bit.

Forget economics because largely I agree with the broader statement that the economy is too complex a matter to be left to the generals alone. And yet the generals have an unexplained fetish for it; I can vouch that generals do take their economy seriously. That restrains real economists from exercising the economy the right way, keeping it stagnated especially when they must work with the generals in power.

But pray, do tell me if all those exercising their minds day-in and day-out on all kinds of security issues as experts in the media are qualified to address the issue? For that matter, what expertise do we carry to comment on foreign or defence or security policies? The economy I agree is too technical, as is security or law, and one must tread carefully into such avenues. But who cares? This is open season for self-styled experts to formulate unrestrained views without even peripheral knowledge.

The 18th Amendment is interesting; some view it only in how it impacts the army’s budgetary needs. The amendment qualifies to be a game-changer in the constitutional evolution and a significant step in empowering the provinces and giving them a sense of ownership.

And then in Pakistan’s history there stands that one sad chapter when the country was dismembered because a province was denied rights. This gets repeated as a testimony of what might befall if we repeat the mistake. Hence the criticality of why the 18th Amendment must be preserved. Except that the policy and structural adornments which must accompany such devolution of power and responsibility remain hopelessly untouched even if the geography wasn’t a factor.

This enhanced role was accompanied by increased allocations under a revised NFC award. The provinces court enhanced allocations but absolve themselves from attending to attached responsibilities. The provinces are still not raising enough revenue to fulfil their responsibility. This keeps the people deprived and makes the federation weaker because of weaker constituents. But this is only one aspect.

The second relates to an uncontested hold of the governments in power, which translates into political parties as the wholesale owners of provinces because of their strong regional presence. There isn’t a political force even in conception capable of dislodging the PPP from Sindh, and perhaps the PML-N from Punjab, in the foreseeable future. If Sindh seems to be stagnated in governance and regressive in the treatment of its people, there is little that anyone can do to change the Sindh government’s approach. To leave it to the people to vote the party out of power is as simplistic as it is misleading.

So then was the 18th Amendment really meant to enable a closer-to-home delivery than building firewalls from federal influence? That remains the pressing concern in an environment of all-round weak governance and exploitative power which these political actors arrogate. Asif Ali Zardari may not soon see a return to power in the centre but none can dislodge him in Sindh. This may have been the real, though underlying, intent of an otherwise altruistic 18th Amendment. There is thus a need to build checks and balances to stem unrestricted exploitation of a province’s political environment in favour of only one group of political elites. This remains imperative even if the army has been pushed to distance itself from any speculation of the attending impact of the amendment.

A doctrine was thus falsely framed and then demolished by democracy aficionados. In the world of fake news, this hardly is news. To be sure, though, the army chief may speak with care – with even greater care exercised in forming the list of invitees. The subject of the economy should still be avoided as a slippery slope. I concede.

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